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Report Outlines Ways to Protect Big Bend Region from Energy Sprawl

Pipes waiting to be buried during construction of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in 2017. (Will Mederski)

A long-awaited report from the Respect Big Bend Coalition lays out recommendations for balancing new energy projects with land conservation in the Big Bend region.

By Travis Bubenik

A Texas conservation group tied to the “father of fracking” has released a list of recommendations for how to protect one of the state’s most pristine regions from future energy sprawl.

The Respect Big Bend Coalition on Wednesday released a sweeping report two years in the making — describing the findings as a kind of “roadmap” for any potential energy development in the greater Big Bend region.

The project was launched in 2019 in part because of concerns about a Far West Texas oil play started by Houston-based Apache Corporation. Dubbed “Alpine High,” the play was once touted as an historic discovery in a mostly untouched corner of the state, but it ultimately fizzled after the company lost billions of dollars and failed to find large amounts of oil.

The central recommendations in Wednesday’s report are the culmination of two years worth of ensuing conversations, meetings and research among Respect Big Bend organizers, experts at universities in Austin and Alpine, area landowners and other stakeholders.

The report outlines a variety of methods to minimize the environmental impact from any oil, wind or solar companies that might set their sights on the Big Bend region. The report’s recommendations mainly focus on companies being more strategic about where they build new facilities with input from area landowners.

“It’s possible to come up with mitigation strategies, ways to reduce whatever negative impacts might be associated with that development,” Melinda Taylor, a University of Texas law professor who led the project, said during a press briefing Wednesday.

The project is an initiative of the Mitchell Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded in part by fracking pioneer George Mitchell. Mitchell’s work on hydraulic fracturing technology paved the way for the U.S. fracking boom, though Mitchell himself acknowledged that the boom came with legitimate environmental concerns.

In recent years, the organization has shifted its focus to environmental and sustainability issues, including programs aimed at mitigating the fracking boom’s negative environmental impacts.

“The foundation's view is that any negative impacts of development should be minimized, so that the positive impacts of new, reliable energy resources can be maximized,” said Marilu Hastings, a Mitchell Foundation executive.

As part of the “roadmap” for future energy development, the Respect Big Bend group developed an interactive mapping tool that organizers said could be used by landowners and energy firms to map out where exactly any new energy facilities would have the least environmental impact.

“I think the next step would be to take this tool to a particular play, or particular area where there is some energy development planned, and to test it in that context,” Taylor said.

Still, Taylor acknowledged Wednesday that the project hasn’t yet led to any firm commitments from companies or landowners to follow the report’s specific recommendations.

“No, we don’t have a list of folks who have agreed at this point to employ this tool,” Taylor said. “Our hope is that the community and other stakeholders would find this a useful mechanism.”

Though the urgency surrounding the project may have eased thanks to Apache’s oil drilling plans falling apart and the industry’s broader bust during the Covid-19 pandemic, Respect Big Bend organizers point to the energy industry’s longer-term shift away from oil as a key reason why a more thoughtful approach to land use is still needed.

In the report, researchers noted that while most future oil and gas activity is expected to remain in parts of West Texas that have already been heavily drilled, a broader swath of the region has the potential for future wind and solar farms.

“The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy will still have a disproportionate impact on small communities and surrounding natural resources,” Hastings said.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.